From the Vikings to Vietnam – Five Wars in Which Drugs Fuelled the Fighting

 
 
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Drugs have a long history as part of war. These days, their main role is a medicinal one, but down the centuries they have often been used to fire the fighting spirit.

Viking Raids – the Drug Fuelled Berserkers

Vikings in Battle. Jakub T. Jankiewicz / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0
Vikings in Battle by Jakub T. Jankiewicz. Photo Credit

The Viking legacy is a vast one. From the 8th to 11th centuries, their raids and conquests shaped the politics and culture of northern Europe. Long after their power ended, they left behind a fascinating mythology, tales of fearsome warriors, and beautiful ruins where buildings had once stood.

Part of their legacy is the word ‘berserk’.

The word ‘Viking’ refers to the raiders and settlers who emerged from Scandinavia from around 790 AD, spreading across the North Sea and beyond. Their arrival usual took the form of sudden, violent attacks in which local communities were pillaged. The berserkers were the ultimate expression of this wild, furious raiding.

Dressed in bear skins as tribute to the god Odin, the berserkers were the shock troops of many Viking raids. Apparently losing control in the heat of battle, they moved wildly around the combat, showing no fear or mercy.

Religion, psychological trauma, and shared culture may all have contributed to the behavior of berserkers, but drugs also played a part. Consuming the hallucinogenic fungus Amanita muscaria as part of their rituals, they gave in to the derangement the drug brought. It was easy to become wild and fearless when reality was vanishing behind a religious hallucination.

The Crusades – Hashishin, the Orginal Assassins

14th-century painting of the assassination of Nizam al-Mulk by an assassin.
14th-century painting of the assassination of Nizam al-Mulk by an assassin.

One of the deadliest threats the European Crusaders met in the Middle East was the order of assassins known in western tradition as the Hashishin.

A group of Muslims based in Persia and Syria, the Nizari were formed in the 11th century, and soon came into conflict with other Muslim powers in the region. To defend themselves, they began training young acolytes known as fidai, turning them into covert killers. Smart and deadly, the fidai infiltrated enemy positions and took out their leaders, often at the cost of their own lives.

To ensure their cooperation in this work, the fidai had to be particularly dedicated to the cause. Exactly how this was achieved is controversial, and so many myths abound that the truth may never be known. Drugs have long been believed to have played a part.

According to this version of the Hashishin story, the fidai were drugged and shown a beautiful garden, causing them to believe that they had witnessed paradise. Only once they died for the cause of their leaders could they return there. Believing that only death in a righteous cause could recreate their drug-fuelled euphoria, they were ready to die taking out the infidels.